Servant power

Lesson Eight, 2 Corinthians 11:1-32

What comes to mind when you think about the words “power,” “authority” and “honor”? Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty begins our lesson with this question. This query sent me to the dictionary and drove me into uncomfortable issues of what it means to follow Jesus.

The word “power” is interesting. It means the ability to perform a particular action. It’s the use of a specific faculty, like the power of speech. It is energy, like the fuel that can run your car or deliver a burst of speed from an athlete. Power can be influence, coercion, dominance or might. We know all too well about the abuse of power and “star” power.

Power, authority and honor can be earned by one’s commendable track record and ability. Power and authority can be also be conferred by a job or an elected office. The power and authority given to us in a job may not be an indication of real skill, as anyone who has worked for a lousy boss can testify. Power can be creative and nurturing. Some of the best leaders in industry and government are those who hire to their weakness, delegate authority, share power and foster the ability of others, while providing vision, guidance and responsible control.

Moral authority comes from living a life that engenders ongoing respect. It comes from a life of compassion, trustworthiness, humility and honoring people regardless of their station in life. Such people of integrity can inspire us to greater compassion and justice, but also enrage us when our own self-interests are threatened.

People like Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. who lived with unwavering dedication to God, compassion and justice have inspired people to risk much to improve the lives of others. However, other people wanted them dead. We tend to like our moral examples to live at some distance from us in time or space so we can admire them from afar. For example, Pope Francis is remarkable in his Christian witness. His persuasive authority comes from a lifetime of advocating for and living among the poor. I admire him deeply, and I would be far more effective to Christ if I lived as Pope Francis does. But I’d rather applaud him than adopt a more radical Christian lifestyle.

Paul raised the issue of Christlike leadership and authority with the Corinthian faith community. After Paul had left Corinth, other teachers had come into the Christian community. Apparently, the Corinthians were swayed by the charismatic leadership of these teachers who had fine oratorical skills. Certainly Roman culture valued persuasive speakers and honored people with good credentials and social standing. Paul implies that these other teachers were more flash than substance. He sarcastically called these teachers “super apostles” and even strongly condemned them as “false, deceitful, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).

Paul was criticized for unimpressive speech and a weak leadership style in comparison with these other teachers (2 Corinthians 10:10). Yet, Paul was not defensive simply because he was being attacked. Paul was bent out of shape because the false teachers were watering down the gospel. They were allowing the rich to exclude the poor, maintaining cultural divisions. They boasted of their Jewish heritage, instead of preaching that in Christ the divisions are broken down between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. Pedigree, credentials and social status seemed more important, so these teachers are “quietly toning down the hard, rough edge of the gospel” of the crucified Jesus. These teachers wanted the reputation and status the world confers, and frankly, the suffering Lord just doesn’t go down so smoothly.

If we follow Jesus, then our lives should look like Jesus. According to Philippians 2, Jesus did not bank on his status as being one with God. Instead, Jesus emptied himself and became a servant for humanity. Paul drove home the message that the effectiveness of our ministry is not measured by having a great choir, a fine preacher and good programming at our churches. Instead, our honor as Christians comes from our devotion to being like Jesus, becoming a servant of others, telling the good news of God’s sacrificial love, even if it involves personal suffering and persecution (see 2 Corinthians 11:16-32).

Although we can easily view ourselves as insignificant and without much influence, we all have significant power. We can choose to use our time and money for ourselves or for the welfare of the prisoner, the poor and the hopeless. We can decide to become better parents, grandparents and Christian leaders through honest self-examination and prayer. We can love children who are not our own and act with respect towards all other people. We have tremendous servant power. The question is: How and for whom will we use it?

rosalind-banburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.